SAUDI ARABIA woke on April 29th to what passes for a political earthquake in the world’s most absolute monarchy. State television announced the appointment of a new heir to the throne, and a chosen successor to that heir.
Muhammad bin Nayef, the interior minister, was named the new crown prince. He replaces Muqrin, King Salman’s half-brother and the youngest living son of Abdel Aziz Al Saud, who founded the modern kingdom in 1932. The new deputy crown prince, or second-in-line to the throne, is Muhammad bin Salman, the 30-something son of the king.
Muhammad bin Nayef’s elevation means the crown will pass to the next generation on the current king’s death. This ends a 60-year tradition of rule passing between brothers; welcome since the current ruling generation is ever more remote from its youthful population. King Salman is 79, while almost 70% of his 29m citizens are under 30. The ousted crown prince is 69. The new one is a relatively youthful 55.
But the moves also reeks of dynastic intrigue. They shore up Salman’s line, known as the Sudairis, the seven sons and their descendants of one of Abdel Aziz’s many wives. Since Salman ascended to the throne in January he has relentlessly promoted his favourite child, Muhammad, despite his lack of experience. He appointed him head of his royal court, defence minister and head of a powerful new body overseeing the economy, which is the biggest in the Middle East. He has been the face of the ongoing war in Yemen, while Muqrin, though a former air force pilot, has barely appeared in the media.
Muhammad bin Nayef is popular due to his record on security. He crushed the local al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out a bombing campaign in Riyadh between 2005 and 2007 (surviving members fled over the border to Yemen where they are profiting from the chaos of war). Only a day before the reshuffle Saudi Arabia announced the arrest of 93 militants for ties to Islamic State, including two it alleges were planning to bomb the American embassy in Riyadh.
Among the other changes announced in the small hours, Saud al-Faisal, who has been foreign minister for 40 years, was replaced by Adel al-Jubair, a non-royal but until this week ambassador to Washington, DC. Sudairi or not, the House of Saud needs to make sure that they, not Iran, remains America’s main ally in the region.